Jennifer Gampell
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Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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October 22, 2003

By Jennifer Gampell
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, October 22, 2003

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND -- Armani Casa sources home accessories and furnishings from Chiang Mai. So do Donna Karan, Gumps, Nicole Farhi Home and other international design icons (who shall remain anonymous to protect everyone's exclusivity). Once renowned mainly for its ancient temples and wild water fights during the annual Songkran festival, Thailand's second-largest city is overtaking Bangkok as the shopping destination of choice for dedicated followers of interior-design fashion.

"Chiang Mai is a great shopping experience," says Kristina Zanic, managing director of architectural and design firm DWP-City Space in Bangkok. Though she's also part-owner of a snazzy housewares store in the Thai capital, Zanic often heads to Chiang Mai to find the chic contemporary pieces she uses to accent the hotel rooms, offices and restaurants of corporate clients.

This is not to say that Bangkok doesn't have its own ultra-soigné design outlets (especially at the Discovery Center, Emporium and Gaysorn Plaza). But since a lot of the stock that isn't imported from Burma, the Philippines or Vietnam comes from Chiang Mai anyway, foreign wholesale buyers often skip the traffic-choked capital. Chiang Mai is easier to navigate than Bangkok, and buyers can accomplish more business there in a day or two than they can in the capital. (And, as every deal-conscious shopper knows, prices drop the closer you get to a product's source.)

You don't necessarily have to visit the wholesale and factory showrooms located in the suburbs, since many stores also have branches downtown. Shops are easy to find because, unlike Bangkok, Chiang Mai offers half a dozen free city magazines, all with shopping sections. For example, Art & Culture Lanna, a slick brochure-sized publication, is devoted to design-focused shops and restaurants.

Though touts still try to take people to the tacky displays of umbrella- and mulberry paper-making in the pseudo-craft "villages" on the outskirts of town, design cognoscenti stick closer to downtown. The beautifully renovated wooden houses along Thaphae Road create an elegant backdrop for Living Space, a cohesive collection of high-gloss lacquerware and other interesting items; and Tea House Siam Celadon, which sells pottery and houses a tearoom.

On the opposite side of the street, Nova Collection is the only place in town to find seriously contemporary jewellery. Its team of Thai and Western designers has created an original line in silver, and another in yellow and white gold.

Style has become so de rigueur in Chiang Mai that even the once-tawdry Night Market has climbed on the bandwagon, especially on the second and third floors of the original building. Some of the better shops there include Chilli, Paradise (with its sandstone exterior wall treatments and contemporary interior knick-knacks), Arnut Asia Treasures and Under The Bo.

The long, sidewalk-less block of Charoenrat Road along the Ping River near Nawarat Bridge is home to some of the city's oldest interior shops. Sop Moei Arts, Oriental Style, the Gallery and Vila Cini are located in refurbished colonial-style buildings. Newer shops, such as Art-On and Khampan, keep appearing in the cute wooden shophouses nearby.

Thai culture guru Paothong Thonchua's eponymous clothing store is architecturally interesting, even if Sino-Thai silk clothes aren't your thing. Set alone in a woodsy glade a couple of kilometres upriver, Aka Walai Gallery & Tea Room sells locally designed and produced furnishings in a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque remodelled house with a Balinese-style garden.

Hans Christensen, a designer with Bangkok-based Cocoon homewares, calls Chiang Mai "the Ubud of Thailand." A slight overstatement perhaps, although Nimanhaemin Road and its pedestrian-friendly offshoot, Nimanhaemin 1, have coalesced into a design and lifestyle hub, complete with an annual Arts & Design Promenade, now in its fourth year. Notable on the main road is Gerard Collection, which offers European-style furniture and accessories made from well-cured bamboo and other indigenous woods.

Long-time residents of Nimanhaemin 1 include Gongdee Gallery, a company that has found 21st-century uses for the ancient art of gold-leaf stencilling; and the newer Gongdee Studio, a multi-purpose theatre and gallery space.
Also among this group are Bangkok-based Ayodhya (furniture and accessories made from water hyacinth), Fai Ngam (quality antique home furnishings), yet another Paradise store and Wit's Collection (ceramics geared toward the French export market).

The Chiang Mai area has been regionally renowned for beautiful home accessories for centuries. Attracted by plentiful natural resources and temperate climes, artisans from Burma, Laos and China began settling here in the 13th century. They congregated according to specialty in the Asian equivalent of guilds (the now-tacky craft villages) and produced most of life's daily necessities by hand. Their skills ran the gamut from ornate religious objects to household items, royal silks to homespun cotton, teak palaces to wooden drainage pipes.

By the early 1990s, however, the burgeoning tourist industry was threatening Chiang Mai's 700-year-old handcrafting traditions. Few modern-day artisans wanted to spend days or weeks fashioning one-off originals when they could earn more cranking out pseudo-traditional souvenirs. It was around this time that a new wave of "immigrants" (hip, young Bangkokians with degrees in design and advertising from foreign institutions) arrived on the scene. Teaming up with a cotérie of design-aware resident expats, they began reinterpreting Thai handicrafts in modern -- and minimalist -- ways.

For example, the designers at Gongdee apply gold-leaf stencilling -- traditionally used to decorate wooden temple doors -- to boxes and lathe-turned vessels. At Chilli, a temple fineal suddenly becomes a chic objet. The designers at Sop Moei Arts help Pwo Karen villagers turn their traditional basket shapes into thoroughly modern wine-bottle holders and napkin rings.
The business-savvy and design-focused retailers similarly transformed some of the city's moldering Lanna-style and Sino-colonial houses into spacious showcases for their new products. Up until then, "presentation" meant dingy spaces with products crammed onto racks.

The opening of the luxurious Regent Chiang Mai hotel and spa in 1995 fuelled the nascent "contemporary Thai" design buzz and put Chiang Mai on the international style map. Many of the hotel's contemporary and faux-antique pieces in the rooms and gardens are made locally. Guests receive a list of items used in the rooms and the local suppliers who sell them.

It was seven years before the city's next style-conscious hotel, Tamarind Village, appeared. The two-storey, white stucco and dark-wood buildings in rustic Lanna-colonial style make an understated yet elegant counterpoint to the Regent's opulence. Ingeniously arrayed around three grassy courtyards, the peaceful 40-room boutique property sits on a tiny plot in the heart of the moated Old City. Birdsong, tall plants and a gracious allée of canopied bamboo effectively insulate guests from Chiang Mai's cacophony. The compact but high-ceilinged rooms are contemporary minimalist with polished cement floors, lots of unbleached natural cotton and teak accents.

Chiang Mai designerati had never had an eatery as stylish as they are -- that is, until The House opened late last year. Cocoon designer Christensen transformed a high-ceilinged 1930s abode overlooking the inner moat into the city's first fusion restaurant.

Like the building, the décor feels more Indochinese than Thai. Furnishings such as light-coloured wicker chairs, thick bevelled mirrors, glass chandeliers and flowery Chinese pillows refer to various decades of the building's existence. The Pacific Rim cuisine, however, is completely of the moment.
Christensen and his Thai chef (formerly of Jester's at the Peninsula Bangkok) are Jamie Oliver devotés and delight in presenting unusual juxtapositions, such as steamed sea bass with wasabi mashed potato or prawn spring rolls with tangerine and sweet Thai chili. A second branch of Ginger -- Christensen's "anti-Cocoon girly fashion and girly homeware" boutique -- just opened behind the main house.

Contemporary Thai style has become such an accepted part of global design vernacular that it's hard to imagine a time when Thai spaces and products weren't featured regularly on the pages of modish publications such as Wallpaper*, Travel + Leisure and Elle Décor. The concept looks to have a more enduring profile than other global style trends.

"The high-end design boom is just beginning in Thailand," predicts Caryl Brill of Thai-based Bambou Ltd. She sources and develops exclusive products from the region for prestigious clients in the United States. Having reanimated its creative spirit of yore, Chiang Mai will undoubtedly play a leading role in this process, as well.

If you go

Aka Walai Gallery & Tea Room: 35 Rattanakosin Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 260514; fax: 66 (53) 243129; e-mail:
Arnut Asia Treasures: Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, Chang Klan Road; phone: 66 (53) 279036; e-mail:
Ayodhaya: Nimanhaemin Rd. Soi 1; phone: 66 (53) 358249; e-mail:
Chilli Antiques & Arts: Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, 125 Moo 4 Baanwhan Hangdong, 2nd floor, room 25-26; phone: 66 (53) 818475.
Fai Ngam: Nimanhaemin Rd. Soi 1; phone: 66 (53) 895012; e-mail:
Gerard Collection: 623-24 Nimanhaemin Rd.; phone: 66 (53)220604; fax: 66 (53) 21656; e-mail:
Gongdee Gallery: 10/12 Nimanhaemin Rd. Soi 1; phone: 66 (53) 225032; fax: 66 (53) 215768.
Living Space: 276-278 Thaphae Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 874299; e-mail:; Web:
Khampan: 9 Charoenrat Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 262419; e-mail:
Nova Collection: 201 Thaphae Rd; phone: 66 (53) 273058; Web:
Oriental Style: 36 Charoenrat Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 245724.
Paradise: Store one: Apartment H, Nimanhaemin Rd. Soi 1; phone: 66 (53) 894292. Store two: 3rd Floor, Room 60, 71-72 Night Bazaar T. Chang Klan; phone: 66 (53) 818745.
Sop Moei Arts: The Elephant Quay House, 31-35 Charoenrat Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 260844; Web:
Tea House Siam Celadon: 158 Thaphae Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 234518.
The Gallery: 25-29 Charoenrat Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 248601; e-mail:
Under the Bo: 22-23, 56-57 Nakornping Night Bazaar, Chang Klan Road; phone: 66 (53) 818831.
Vila Cini: 30 Charoenrat Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 246246;
Wit's Collection: 1F Niemanhaemin Rd. Soi 1; phone: 66 (53) 217544; fax: 66 (53) 217541; e-mail:

The House: 199 Moonmuang Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 419 011; e-mail:

The Regent Chiang Mai: Samoeng Old Road; phone: 66 (53) 298181; Web:
Tamarind Village: 50/1 Rajdamnoen Rd.; phone: 66 (53) 4188969; Web:



Copyright 2003 Jennifer Gampell